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Dreams and the Hero Myth
How the Hero Mythical Journey appears in dreams. An extract from ‘Fantasy Dreaming’ by Craig Hamilton-Parker
The Hero’s Quest in Dreams
The call to adventure in a dream is the prelude to the exploration of the unconscious. This is a theme that has been expressed in myth and legend throughout the ages and reflects the need to discover one’s true identity. Although in dreams and mythical fantasies it is symbolized by an outward journey, it is in fact an inner journey to the center of existence. The lonely journey brings us into contact with the very heartbeat of the world’s consciousness.
The quest for identity is expressed in mythic fantasies and dreams about the journey and quest of the hero. Stories about the hero are one of the most common themes classical mythology of Greece and Rome, and the stories continue through the Middle Ages, in the Far East, and among contemporary tribal societies. From society to society these myths have a striking similarity. He usually has a humble birth but during childhood displays special powers that mark him as someone with a special purpose in life. He rapidly rises to prominence and power and undergoes a triumphant struggle with the powers of evil. Eventually he falls victim to the sin of pride (hubris) and his fall through betrayal or a heroic sacrifice results in his death.
For the individual, these stories reflect the process of discovering and asserting the personality, and for society at large, they show the need for a collective identity.
The hero symbolizes a person’s unconscious self. His goal is to find the treasure, the princess, the ring, the elixir of life, the golden fleece, and so on. These are all metaphors for one’s true feelings and unique potential. In the process of becoming whole, the heroic task is to become aware of the unconscious contents of the personality instead of being overwhelmed by them. The result of this quest is the release of energy and abilities hitherto unable to express themselves.
Joseph Campbell, in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, explains that the ancient hero-myths reflect the human struggle for identity. The theme reflects the collective goals of all humanity to find meaning and purpose. Today we have lost this objective, and the hero myth has fallen into disuse. Science and technology have externalized our inner life, and the communication between consciousness and the unconscious is lost. Nonetheless the fantasy of the hero myth will continue to manifest but now in a modern guise. For example, the stories about Superman and other superheroes follow a similar format as the classic myths. In the guise of Clark Kent, the hero is an ordinary person just like us, yet secretly he has magical powers. We are the same. We live an ordinary life, yet in the hidden world of the unconscious is the potential to become superhuman. Dreams and fantasies about heroes show that an ordinary person holds hidden extraordinary power. These powers awaken when we rediscover the full potential of the human psyche.
The Hero’s Journey
In mythical stories, the hero undertakes an arduous journey in order to find the treasure or release the trapped maiden. He often travels by ship or fights a sea monster. For example he may, like Jonah, in the Bible, be swallowed by a monster, showing that he has been overwhelmed by unconscious contents. From a Freudian perspective this may show that the person is motivated by an unconscious desire to return to the security of the womb. Escaping from the whale may show leaving the mother, the source of life, behind him yet experiencing a rebirth.
The hero’s quest will take him through a dangerous landscape where he will face his fears in the form of mythical animals and beings. He may discover an Aladdin’s Cave of jewels or a dangerous genie. These dreams and fantasies are often accompanied by feelings of fear and dread because they threaten the security most people have built for themselves and their family. They are dangerous dreams, yet the hero knows that the realm he is entering and the adventures he will face carry the keys to unlock the way to discover his true self.
En route to individuation (a term used by Jung to mean self-realization) the hero must resist a number of temptations and challenges. The first figure he may meet on the road to self-realization is his own shadow (another term used by Jung to represent the dark side of the individual–everything you don’t like about yourself). The shadow is the side of yourself that has been disowned; it may appear as an evil or frightening figure. It may be an unsavory aspect of your personality that you refuse to accept. In life we imagine that everyone else has the terrible qualities that our shadow represents–everyone except ourselves, of course. Perhaps you have seen other people do this. For example, a terribly jealous sort of person may accuse other people of being jealous. Similarly, a selfish person may accuse others of not giving of themselves. Everyone does this to some extent, and it happens on a collective level too. White people may blame the troubles of the world on black people, and vice-versa. Some people identify a particular religious group as the cause of all their troubles. Other people become the scapegoats for our own failings and for everything that is wrong with us and with society. We project onto them our shadow.
The hero’s quest is to discover that the shadow figure that appears in dreams is, in fact, the qualities that he has rejected in himself. The process of integration requires him (and each of us) to take responsibility for his faults and stop projecting his shadow onto other people.
The hero also learns to accept the shadow qualities in himself. Negative qualities must be faced and brought to the light if they are to be disarmed. The process of integration that results from the inner adventure requires him to accept these qualities and transform them, thereby helping himself become a more self-aware and full individual. The hero learns to discard the mask of who he thinks he is and, in so doing, becomes the person he really is.